College Textbook Sales and an Internet Textbook Model

According to the NACS 2004 College Store Industry Financial Report, college bookstore sales of new textbooks reached $4.956 billion. Used textbooks added another $1.751 billion. By contrast, the combined North American sales of Amazon, Barnes & Noble (stores and website) and Borders for 2004, including music and DVD sales, were $10.83 billion. Deduct something for those non-book items and allow for the fact that Amazon et al also sell some number of college textbooks, and you see that college bookstores with their captive audiences make up a good third of the U.S. bookstore market. We can arrive at the same estimate by just using the U.S. Census estimates for 2004 bookstore sales of $16.22 billion and backing out the other totals. Any way you look at it, college textbooks are a huge market generating tremendous profits for some publishers and bookstores.

I actually publish one book that's used as a college textbook in some technical colleges, and its cover price is $14.95. I imagine it's a bit of a shock for students after they shell out $150 for a calculus text (all of which are derivative of Newton and Bernoulli) to see my slim volume for a tenth of the price, and I wouldn't be surprised if they actually keep mine longer. I lived in a college town for a decade, and the numerous textbooks available on the curb when school lets out testifies to both the intrinsic value of those books and the success of the textbook industry in persuading professors to change them as frequently as possible.

It's really a bit of a sick joke that textbooks should be growing ever costlier and heavier (weight justifies cost) at a time when the Internet has become omnipresent on and around college campuses, with a wealth of free information on everything under the sun. We live in an age where computer geeks band together to create and distribute cooperative versions of an operating system (Linux) and numerous related add-ons, and when whole communities edit interactive sites like the Wikipedia. So why do college professors remain mute while cash-strapped students lay out over $750 a year for books that will eventually be converted to shelf art or used for leveling wobbly tables?

The textbook situation is one of those problems that could easily be solved by a combination of internet publication and print-on-demand. Just imagine, professors could write their own textbooks without selling their souls to the editors at the NY trades who insist on the inclusion of needless color illustrations and bizarre formatting just to run up the price. The cream would rise to the top. When students wanted (or were required) to purchase the texts, they could be printed on demand, as a whole text or in sections, and students would see their textbook costs drop to under $20 per course. Thanks to the print on demand publishing model, an Internet textbook co-op could pay for its overhead and still pay professors royalties on par with what they would have earned on a $150 paperweight.

I'm long out of college myself, when I studied engineering, we thought $50 was a lot for a textbook. Engineering hasn't changed, but the prices of the textbooks have tripled. I'm not anti-capitalist, I operate my own publishing company for a profit, but I also find I can give away most of my work on the Internet and do quite well on the earnings from readers who choose to purchase the full paper versions, printed on demand with no inventory or overhead costs. Just as anybody who lives near a gas station can tell you there's price gouging, any student in the U.S. can tell you somebody is price gouging in the college textbook market. It couldn't happen without the collusion of the institutions who own the college bookstores and the professors who assign the books. "Whatever the market will bear" and "Greed is good" make a curious first lesson to be teaching the next generation.

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